The only one of the “New Atheists” I have ever read is Sam Harris. I recently finished his The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. I think it was the seeming audacity of the title that drew me to the work. As a student of religion (and the humanities more generally), I am reluctant to believe claims that science can directly replace the position that religions have traditionally held in society, even as I am a failure at religion myself. I have written on the topic before, as well as the relation of scientific knowledge to the senses.
After reading The Moral Landscape, I looked at my notes for the other Harris book I read back in 2007, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, which is the work that first put Harris on the map. Though the earlier work talks more specifically about religion, they both contain some of the same ideas, namely that religion is an illogical and insufficient guide for morality, and does more harm than good (or at least it does enough harm to outweigh the good). Even reading his book back then, as a Christian, I conceded that he did seem to have a genuine concern for the growing violence in the world and its connection with forms of religion. However, I had several general objections at the time, all of which I now consider insufficient (and all of which he anticipates in The Moral Landscape).
First, I objected that Harris criticizes faith for not being testable, when the very definition of faith—at least in one Pauline Christian interpretation—is belief in things unseen, belief despite lack of evidence. Harris also noted that the extent to which religious adherents are tolerant is the extent to which they don’t believe what their tradition tells them. I am much more inclined to agree with this statement now than I was as a Christian.
The other major objection I lodged is embarrassingly common among religious adherents. If you take away a person’s religion, what else will they have to give them a reason to live? It is easy to see that this is not an adequate defense of religion; it is simply a plea to allow people to continue believing something that cannot be proven. The frequent complaint lodged against atheists is that it is just mean to pick on someone’s beliefs if they aren’t hurting anyone and it gives the person comfort. One response is that it does hurt society for people who don’t existentially rely on religion to continue to affirm belief in it, both because of the systemic forms of intolerance and violence it can support, and the continued support it gives religion in general for those groups we would label as “fundamentalist.”
My conclusion in my review of End of Faith was that, despite good arguments that Harris made, science was simply not advanced enough to replace religion as a source of values. Religion has traditionally been that source, and that gives it a historical advantage. Looking back, that amounted to dragging my heels and applying a standard to science that I exempted religion from because of its lengthier history. My reading of the Moral Landscape affected me in a different way.
The gist of The Moral Landscape is that our brain, our consciousness, is the primary determinant of how we view, interact with, and understand our world. As that is the case, it is science that offers us the best method for understanding the way we operate, particularly the way we interact with the world and each other. We call the standards that guide us morals, and many think those are given by God or a religious tradition, but for Harris, we must look to science for keys to a more sustainable well-being than religion has offered.
At the beginning of the work, I found myself making the same critique: science doesn’t lay out an exact map of morality. I am much less confident than Harris in the ability of science to help solve moral quandaries, especially “science” in the generalized way he seems to be using it. His focus on the brain seems a little too cold and clinical at times. For example he explains that the chemicals oxycontin and vasopressin have to do with the way we emotionally bond to others. Children raised in orphanages do not experience the same surge of these chemicals when interacting with adoptive parents as other children do with biological parents. While to me, as with Harris, it is clear that this altered chemical makeup affects the emotional and psychological responses of these children, the implications of solving these problems on a chemical or biological level would look much different than solving them on a psychological one, and involve looking at the human in a different way. At the least, this shows that while our morality may depend in part on the human brain—and a complete picture of morality may not be possible without it—it does not depend solely on the brain.
However, the critiques that Harris makes of our current moral hang-ups are poignant, and offer experts in religion a significant challenge. He strongly criticizes the kind of moral and cultural relativism that seems to prevent any critique of a particular value system. The idea that we cannot criticize the head-to-toe veiling of women is preposterous, Harris argues, based on any system that would suppose to value societal well-being. He dismisses the response that these women may be happy with their situation by contending that even if this were the case, it is quite clear that we often do not know what is best for us.
This is dangerous territory for Harris, who might be accused of playing God, but no more or less so than the major religious traditions themselves do. What is overwhelmingly practical about his approach, however, is that it does not claim to have the right answers, although it certainly does admit to their possibility. Rather, Harris sets broad parameters and says it is clear that a world in which everyone’s well-being was maximized would surely be better than a world where everyone misery would be maximized. We know the direction to go, although we may not have the definitive answer to every moral dilemma. Maximizing well-being is good, maximizing misery is bad.
The study of religion, and that of morality in general, is heavily influenced by anthropology and its story of the noble savage, the cultures and tribes that we cannot judge since they are culturally independent. Who are we to say they are unhappy, even if they are sacrificing each other to appease bloodthirsty deities? This complex is in part rooted in a reaction to a past history of Western imperialism, to be sure. However, Harris suggests it is also connected to a confusion between ontology and epistemology. Our experiences are subjective, but this does not mean we can know nothing about them, particularly in a comparative sense. Harris seems to take this approach much farther than I can, seeming to claim that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality. In a conditional sense, I would agree. In a universal sense, I cannot, if only because I don’t see us being privileged with anything approaching that level of knowledge in the near future. However, this doesn’t and shouldn’t stop us from making moral judgements.
As I prepare to teach a class on ethics, Harris’s commitment to “changing people’s ethical commitments” resonates with me. Where we differ is that Harris thinks our ethical commitments can and should be grounded in science. We should be nice to one another because that rewards us with the highest level of such-and-such chemical in our brains, and the presence of such chemical is the highest indicator of subjective levels of happiness based on multiple experiments. I am skeptical that we can ever explicitly base our morality on this. As Harris seems to admit on some level, we may need a more elaborate story, some sort of Nietzschean tragedy to found our morality. I think, though, that we might be happier with founding our morality on the level of social construction, with the help of scientific insight of course. Brain chemicals just don’t make the same story that Joseph Campbell’s hero myth does. This doesn’t prevent criticizing the inadequacy of our current stories and searching for better ones, ones more inclusive of current culture.
In any case, there is much to recommend in Harris’s book and little to fear.